When I first moved to San Francisco, I was six weeks out of college and fresh to the West Coast. I found a room in an SRO on 16th and Mission streets with little to no reference points of how to navigate my way around the city. Right down the block from my bizarre but exciting new living situation was a restaurant that helped me feel like I had a place to relax, eat, and take a minute to soak it all in.
Picaro is a tapas restaurant that has been open for 37 years and has been a favorite neighborhood spot pretty much ever since. The large dining room is full of Spanish artwork with bright yellow and red painted walls. In the center of the restaurant is a massive skylight, letting beams of the Mission’s bright natural rays fill up the dining hall. The large, affordable menu consists of classics like paella and homemade sangrias but it’s the tapas that will keep you snacking all afternoon.
After years of eating at Picaro, I’ve created my own formula for how to work my way through the menu. It’s simple, I start at the beginning. The first section of the menu labeled “embutidos y quesos” are the essentially Spanish antipasti, cold cuts, sausages, and cheeses. These delicious nibbles are meant to accompany your cold beer or tart sangria. If you’re with a small crowd a good place to start is the jamon serrano en pan con tomate. The Spanish cured ham is served on toasted French bread, with fresh tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil ($8.50) and is sure to be a crowd pleaser (who doesn’t love ham and bread?). If you’re alone or with a more adventurous group, go for the morcilla ($7.50). The sauteed Spanish black sausage has a deep sweetness with faint hints of a barnyard. The sausage is cut into small cubes and has a hashlike, crispy texture. It is served with raw onion and lemon to cut through the meat’s richness.
Moving right along, the “ensaladas y tapas vegetarianas” are next. The padron peppers ($6) are lovely. Similar to shishitos, these green chili peppers are blistered and dressed with olive oil and sea salt. They’re smokey with a mild spice, and go down like french fries. I could eat piles of these babies. Speaking of french fries, the patatas bravas ($6) are like rustic home fries and served with a creamy, spicy tomato sauce. The roughly chopped white potatoes have a crackling golden brown skin that conceals a soft, pillowy interior that tastes like pure comfort.
The final and most satiating stop on Picaros’ tapas menu are meats and seafoods. The rabbit stew ($8.75) is like early spring in a bowl, perfect for a cold foggy day. The meatballs with saffron ($7) are sweet and grassy with hints of musky honey. The beautiful thing about most of these dishes is their elegant simplicity. Almost all the fish is sauteed or fried with garlic, parsley, white wine, and lemon, while the meat does the rest. The garlic shrimp ($8) and the grilled lobster tail ($9.50) are plump and luscious, bursting with buttery, garlic flavors. The calamari ($8) comes fried, sauteed, or stewed in its own ink, slightly sweet and nutty with a clean chewiness. A peculiar standout are the grilled salmon strips with aioli ($8.75). The mild, clean ocean flavor of the fish is complemented by the meat’s toasty crust. There are so many tasty options, go for whatever catches your eye.
Looking back, eating my way through this bucolic menu of Spanish traditional dishes were some of my favorite first moments dining out in San Francisco. I had little to no money in my pocket and was being exposed to so many choices, tastes, and smells all in one place. It helped me realize how much our little city has to offer and that I couldn’t wait to taste it all. I still can’t.
3120 16th Street, 415-431-4089